The Bhanwari Devi case highlights the extreme insecurity of lower-level women government employees in States like Rajasthan.
THE latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau show that among mega cities (cities with a population of over 10 lakh), Jaipur has the highest percentage (92.3 per cent) of cases registered under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. Rajasthan's distinction does not end there. The State has the second highest number of reported atrocities against the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). Uttar Pradesh tops the list. Similarly, Rajasthan has recorded the second largest number of atrocities against the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), after Madhya Pradesh.
Data such as these have assumed relevance against the backdrop of the current controversy that has shaken the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government. Several high-profile Ministers, some belonging to politically influential communities, have got enmeshed in a sordid scandal that has now assumed mammoth proportions.
Bhanwari Devi, an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) earning less than Rs.10,000 a month, went missing from Bilada in Jodhpur district on September 1. Given the background of the general incidence of crimes against S.Cs and S.Ts in the State, this was not at all surprising. However, the circumstances surrounding her prolonged disappearance, especially in the context of her alleged proximity to some leading Congress politicians, added a twist to the tale. She was not just another missing person on the police's list, and her disappearance has been the subject of prurient discussion for the past three months. The woman is presumed dead.
Bhanwari Devi, who belonged to the scheduled Nat caste, had apparently cultivated some powerful contacts in the government. The Nats are traditionally known to make a living by staging street performances and acrobatics. As such forms of entertainment became passe, members of the community began leading a more settled life though by and large the living conditions for the majority of them continue to be precarious.
Bhanwari was posted at a sub-centre at Jaliwada village, 120 kilometres from Jodhpur. When she did not report for work on August 25, her family suspected something was amiss. It was rumoured that her disappearance was on account of a compact disc she possessed that revealed her proximity to Public Health and Water Resources Minister Mahipal Maderna, son of Jat leader Parasram Maderna. Her husband, Amarchand, filed a habeas corpus petition with the Jodhpur Bench of the Rajasthan High Court alleging that the Minister had abducted his wife, a mother of three children.
On September 15, as the nurse had not surfaced for more than a fortnight, the government ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into her disappearance. Within a week, the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate directed the police to include the Minister as an accused and ordered an inquiry under Section 376 (rape), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. The mysterious CD did not surface until November. Mayhem broke loose once it did.
With the nurse still untraceable and the court monitoring the situation, Gehlot removed Maderna, who represented the Osian constituency in Jodhpur, from the Cabinet. On October 13, a Division Bench of the High Court sought an explanation from the police as to why they had not questioned those who were named in the case. According to sources in Jodhpur, at least two of the accused persons, including the main accused, Sahiram Bishnoi, were seen moving around freely in September. Bishnoi has since gone underground, and the CBI has declared a reward for information about his whereabouts.
With mystery still shrouding Bhanwari's disappearance, a CD allegedly depicting her with Maderna was aired on a private television channel. Subsequently, almost every television channel in the country picked it up. The transition from the sublime to the ridiculous had just begun. Headlines such as Bhanwari ka Bhanwar (Bhanwari and her whirlpool/cesspool) were splashed in the mass media. The CDs were apparently recovered from her aide, a Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) contractor, Sohan Lal Bishnoi. The focus now shifted from the issue of her disappearance to that of her having multiple liaisons, allegedly with several public figures inside and outside the government, including Malkhan Singh Bishnoi, the Luni MLA. It was now a free-for-all.
Meanwhile, Maderna's wife defended her husband in the media by hinting at the consensual nature of the relationship. She also expressed apprehensions that her husband was the victim of a political conspiracy. The only agency that appeared concerned about the whereabouts of the nurse was the Division Bench of the High Court. It directed the police to make serious efforts to locate Bhanwari Devi. On November 14, the court, comparing the Bhanwari case with the Aarushi Talwar murder case, expressed displeasure with the CBI for its tardiness and directed it to file a status report on November 24.
Nobody seemed to be remotely bothered about what had happened to the hapless woman who had willy-nilly become a victim of political intrigue. The focus shifted to the future of the Congress government, which was in a tenuous position, having come to power with the support of independents. The political concern emanated from the fact that Jats, who comprise 12 per cent of the population, command a presence in 40 to 50 Assembly constituencies. The support of Jats is crucial for any party that wants to form the government in the State.
Perhaps it was also for this reason that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in the State, reacted rather casually to the issue. While officially the BJP demanded Gehlot's resignation, its vice-president, Digambar Singh, appeared to defend Maderna, hinting at a Congress conspiracy behind the issue. Meanwhile, support for Maderna from the Jat community gained strength. To start with, several pradhans, sarpanchas and block chiefs submitted their resignation in protest against his removal.
On November 15, the CBI additionally declared a reward of Rs.10 lakh to anyone providing information about the whereabouts of the missing nurse. Around the same time, Gehlot decided to reshuffle his Cabinet and dropped six Ministers. The entire Cabinet resigned in order to give Gehlot a free hand to choose his new team. Maderna was dropped from the primary membership of the Congress on November 13, before the reshuffle. Another Minister, Ram Lal Jat, also resigned after reports suggested that he had tried to hasten a post-mortem of a woman, allegedly known to him, in mid-September.
The excitement and anticipation over the reshuffle soon petered out as the common perception was that the new faces were not among those who enjoyed popular support in the party and among the people. Meanwhile, Gehlot decided to keep the Home portfolio and removed Shanti Dhariwal from his ministerial post. This was seen as the fallout of the police firing in Gopalgarh in Bharatpur district in September in which 10 persons belonging to the Meo Muslim community were killed. Dhariwal's intemperate remarks on that occasion, justifying the police action initially, caused a severe dent on the Congress' image.
The Bhanwari case reveals the ugly nexus between money, feudal power and politics. That lower government functionaries such as ANMs, workers and helpers associated with the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and, more recently, accredited social health activists, or ASHAs, are in a vulnerable situation in their routine work is well known. The exploitation of women workers involved in government schemes and programmes, most of whom, like ICDS workers or ASHAs, are not even recognised government employees, is well documented.
Harassment and unsafe working conditions are challenges these women face regularly. Women's organisations are quite familiar with the problems encountered by this category of women workers. The conditions are tailor-made for exploitation, more specifically in regions where strong feudal and caste hierarchies have continued to exist. These are regions where women of all castes, especially those belonging to the backward classes and the S.C./S.T. category, are regarded as fair game.
Bhanwari Devi may have been a typical victim in this entire saga. The media will not allow her to become one. Her alleged prosperity and lifestyle has been the object of salacious reporting, but her disappearance only indicates that with the grossly unequal balance of power, the scales were tilted against her as she was the most vulnerable cog in the scheme of things.